What it Means to Me to be a Reform Jew

By Rabbi Lawrence Kushner


February 17, 2011.

Originally delivered at the World Union for Progressive Judaism Biennial Convention in San Francisco, 2011. 

Talking with Your Hands


I used to serve a congregation in suburban Boston. One of our more prominent members was the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet. In addition to being gifted and prolific, David is also very gracious. He even honored Karen and me with walk-on parts in his movie, Oleana. (Alas, our scene wound up on the cutting-room floor.) We were supposed to be having drinks in a lounge, behind the actor Bill Macey. This was the real deal. There were boom mikes, klieg lights, people re-filling our glasses between takes, even a guy with a walkie-talkie stopping traffic on the street outside. Our instructions were to silently move our lips and pretend we were having a conversation. I was pumped—preoccupied with the wording of my Oscar acceptance speech. But no sooner had the first take begun than I hear David calling, “Cut. Cut!” and he’s walking straight toward me. Everyone on the set is staring. What could I have possibly done wrong? I didn’t even have any lines to mess up.

“Rabbi,” says Mamet in a gentle but hortatory voice, “You’re talking with your hands again.” Then, with wink, “Pretend your name is Skylar and your wife’s is Chastity. Okay, roll ’em.”

I guess I wasn’t as fully assimilated as I’d thought. All my parents’ patient, loving work to enable me to pass for an Episcopalian had obviously missed the talking with your hands part.

I suppose I’m what you’d call an Reform Jewish blue blood. My grandfather was a Classical Reform Jew. Family legend claims he even studied for a while with Isaac Mayer Wise himself. I never had a bar mitzvah, only a confirmation. In 1960 I went on NFTY’s second ever trip to Israel. And, when Karen and I got married over forty years ago, because her parents were Conservative, we couldn’t get married in the Reform temple my grandfather had helped build because they didn’t allow huppas and Karen’s parents were adamant. What can I say? Times change.

This thing as four parts. You just heard the first one.

Before I continue, however, I must beg your apology. Much of what I’m about to say is obviously (and hopelessly) North American. I am keenly aware that, while we all share the same life-long devotion to liberal Judaism, my milieu and my analysis of social reality and its remedies, may often not ring true to those in other lands. I don’t even know if our experience here in the United States is irrelevant or a prescient glimpse of what’s yet to come. Indeed, even within the United States, San Francisco is viewed by some as an aberration and by others as  a prophecy.

San Francisco Jews


San Francisco is a very interesting place for Jews to consider assimilation. Less than two miles from here is one of American Reform’s more fascinating attractions. On the corner of California & Buchanan, in the ornately beautiful prayer hall of Congregation Shearith Israel, there’s a big stained-glass window depicting Moshe Rabbeynu receiving the Torah. If you look closely, however, you will notice that it is also a visual midrash. The scene takes place, you see, not on Mount Sinai, but in Yosemite National Park on Half Dome!

San Francisco may, arguably, be one of the most Jewishly assimilated cities in all of Jewish history. The city began as the tiny village of Yerba Buena. In 1847 it had a population of 457. Then gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. And, less than two years later, San Francisco had become a financial center with a population of over 25,000. And the Jews here were in on the ground floor. But we didn’t crawl around in the mountains looking for gold, instead, we just stayed back in the city and sold all the prospectors Levis. (Mamet calls them our quaint national costume.)

As wealthy members of the fledgling city, San Francisco Jews quickly attained, what Professor Mark Dollinger mischievously suggested has been the our secret goal for the past two millennia: Complete social parity with non-Jewish society. But then, just when our detractors were certain Reform Jews would dissolve into Christian America, assimilation stopped! Voilá, we’re still here! Yes, many disappeared but most raised children who, to be sure, stopped talking with their hands, but still knew they were Jews and went on to build this thriving Jewish community.

Reform Jews here, as in so many other places throughout the world, have learned to freely travel between the Jewish world and secular, generically Christian culture. We carry two valid passports. And the cuckoo part is that we like living between both cultures. Neither Twenty-first Century Unitarian wannabes nor Seventeenth Century Polish shtetl pretenders, we are 21st Century Reform Jews.

Maybe it’s time to reexamine the old “assimilated” charge.

Surprise! It turns out that “assimilate” has two definitions. The more common, of course, means to dissolve into the local culture. It’s in that sense that our enemies accuse us of being assimilationist.

But the reason we’re still here is because the word can also mean, not to disappear, but to deliberately take in something from the outside and make it one’s own. For example: The music business has assimilated hip-hop. And we Reform Jews have assimilated some very beautiful but non-Jewish liberal Western ideas: The equality of women; the normalization of gay people; social justice for everyone, not only Jews. But we didn’t swallow these ideas whole. We received them, we shaped them, we grounded them, we assimilated them. We made them Jewish, we made them mitzvot. That’s what we Reform Jews do; it’s who we are; it may even be why God wants us around.

I once converted a man who was already married to a Jew. His last name was Fitzpatrick.

“Rabbi,” he lamented, “‘Fitzpatrick’ isn’t a Jewish name.”

I said: “It will be.”

From a spiritual point of view, in principle, we can assimilate anything as long as we mean to raise it, to make it holy, to sanctify it, to humbly ask if it too might become a mitzvah, in other words, to do it in the service of the Holy One.

“But that might not be Jewish,” you object.

And I respectfully say, “It will be.”

Seats at the Table


So, it’s a trans-continental El Al flight, 36,000 feet over the Atlantic. Suddenly, a guy in the front row puts on a kafiya, reaches under his seat and pulls out an Uzi sub-machine gun. He spins around, points it at the cabin full of terrified passengers and, with wild, bloodshot eyes, shouts, “Who is a Jew?”

Some little old guy in seat 34-c says, “This is a very interesting question.”

My friends, we are facing the defining challenge of our generation. What shall we do with the hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who have or will marry Jews? Future historians will put it in the same survival category as the destruction of the temple or the expulsion from Spain. And, like those other tectonic events, it compels us to re-think everything. Alas, there’s only one easy part: We have no choice.

The battle over intermarriage has already been fought and lost. It’s done, over, kaput. Read my lips. We now have enough data to say, categorically, that there is simply no way to stop vast numbers of Jews from marrying non-Jews. It’s a fact on the ground. Fierce rabbinic bans are risibly ineffective. Insulting forms of covert ostracism only make us look xenophobic and chauvinist. And insisting we are a people but with no publicly identifiable physical or cultural characteristics only make us look racist and stupid.

But the game need not be over. We have been so terrified a Jew might fall in love with a non-Jew, we forgot that, every year, tens, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews also fall in love with, marry, and have children with Jews. They may not yet be willing or able to become Jews, but they have, with their very lives, thrown in their lot with us. Like it or not, they are members of our extended family. And they deserve an honored place at the table—and maybe even to be counted in the minyans Reform Jews claim they don’t count.

Look: Once upon a time intermarriage was a threat to Judaism. Jews coveted gentile hegemony; the faith of Israel was a social disability; and intermarriage was a way out. But now, at least here in North America, the tables have turned 180 degrees. Chelsea Clinton married a Jew. They were married by a rabbi. Jews aren’t fleeing Judaism or being lured into Christianity anymore; it’s Christians who are waiting in line to become Jews. In America, marrying a Yid is now an “up-marriage.”

Do you know the reason the vast majority of intermarried non-Jews give for why they have not formally become Jews? No one ever asked them! Intermarriage today means merely that a Jew and a non-Jew fell in love and got married. Period. What happens to their Judaism, the Judaism of their progeny, and Judaism itself remains almost entirely up to us.

We have a teaching I’ve heard in the name of the Baal Shem Tov. I doubt he really said it but it’s still great advice. Parents, despondent over their daughter’s marriage of to a non-Jew, came to the Besht for consolation and advice. But he only told them: “You must love him all the more.”

My wife, Karen, tells a story about how she got to chatting with a guy while waiting for a bus.

“So what do you do?” he asks.

She takes the risk and tells him the truth: “I work with synagogues to help them be more welcoming to interfaith families.”

He nods. “My father was Jewish. When I was a kid, I wanted to have a bar mitzvah. So my dad took me to a rabbi. But when he found out my mother wasn’t a Jew he sort of threw us out. I even understood why he said what he did. But I was still crushed.”

“I’m so sorry,” consoles Karen.

The bus arrives; it’s crowded and they wind up standing next to one another, hanging from adjacent straps. That’s when Karen notices that there are tears in the guy’s eyes.

He softly says: “D’you think I could maybe consider myself as half-Jewish?”

“No,” replies Karen. “If you like,” she says, “you’re already all Jewish.”

The presence at the table of these potentially new members of our family reminds us that we have something precious. They help us reexamine, deepen, and cherish our own piety. Jews who have chosen Judaism through conversion or, yes, through marrying a Jew and trying to make a Jewish home, free us from ethnocentrism and smugness. These people are not the enemy; they’re a gift. As one of my rabbinic colleagues said about Jews-by-choice in his congregation, “They really believe this stuff. My God, they even do what I say!”

Sure, I wish we all still lived in the 18th Century and could fall back on time-proven strategies for this unprecedented situation. Unfortunately, the last time I checked my iPhone, it was the 21st Century and intermarriage is here to stay. The only question before us now is whether or not we will acknowledge social and religious reality and see what, yes, Heaven, wants of us now.

You say, but that will necessitate a total re-thinking of what is Reform Judaism and, indeed, even who is a Jew. And I say, speaking with my hands: Hey schwer ze sein a Yid.

Olive Oil


Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Lieb of Ger in his Sefat Emet notices a disjunct in a verse from this week’s parasha. At the beginning of Exodus 27:20, God tells us to “take the pure oil of beaten olives for lighting…” which is pretty easy. But then, in the same verse, we’re told to “raise up an everlasting light,” which the Gerer wisely notes is impossible.

“Religious acts,” he says, “cannot be accomplished by personal strength alone but, rather, through the power of performing a religious act, some spiritual power is also awakened. It’s that way with everything we do… Anything accomplished by human power alone, sooner or later, burns out. But, when the power of the Holy One is awakened, that power goes on forever!” (II, 154).

Permit me to conclude with a short clipping from a Detroit newspaper. It’s dated New Year’s Day, 1905:

On Sunday morning, Emogene Vinton Edwards, a 25 year old Presbyterian woman with long blonde hair from Kalamazoo, Michigan—five years after her elopement with a Jewish traveling salesman, Max Edwards—walked down the main aisle of Temple Beth El in Detroit and, in the presence of the entire congregation, publicly became a Jew.

Rabbi Leo M. Franklin explained that “the ceremony usually takes place in the home of the convert [so]… the announcement that it would be performed publicly drew a large congregation… Conversions with us,” he went on, “are more or less rare because we seek to discourage proselytizing of any kind on the ground that we do not teach that men must belong to Judaism to be saved.”

Emogene Vinton Edwards was my maternal grandmother.

Both of her grandsons are Reform rabbis.

So is her great-granddaughter.




About Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He has served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Hebrew Union College in New York City and, before that, as the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass. His books include: I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego, (Jewish Lights, 2010); Kabbalah: A Love Story, (Doubleday/Morgan Road, 2007); and Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, (Jewish Lights, 1999).